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Saint Bonaventure, part 1

15 July 2024

Saint Bonaventure, Part 4 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

After the last series of reflections on St Teresa of Avila, we now return to the high medieval period, with a focus on another Doctor of the Church and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas: the Franciscan friar and bishop Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. Just a few years older than Saint Thomas (born either 1216 or 1221), Saint Bonaventure’s baptismal name was Giovanni di Fidanza. Suffering from an unknown illness as a child, he recounts that he was healed by the prayers of his parents through the intercession of Saint Francis of Assisi. Giovanni demonstrated acute intellectual acumen from his earliest years, and by the age of fourteen he was studying at the University of Paris, the premier academic institution of medieval Christendom. By 1243, he had attained the degree of Master of Arts and shortly thereafter entered the Franciscan Order at Paris, taking the name Bonaventure. Undertaking his formation in the French capital, he embarked on formal theological studies from 1248 onward, around the same time that the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas first arrived in Paris. The paths of these two future saints would cross often, both in and out of Paris, to the point that both would succumb to untimely deaths, separated by less than five months, in 1274.

 

In the 1250’s, the Franciscans and Domincans at Paris were embroiled in a controversy with the secular or diocesan clergy of the university. We cannot go into the full details of the crisis here, but suffice to say that the jealousy of the noble-born secular clergy, especially the canons of Notre Dame, had prevented the acceptance of Aquinas and Bonaventure as Masters of Theology in the university. The two saints engaged in extended polemics defending the mendicant way of life against the often apocalyptic and unhinged accusations of the seculars. It took the intervention of a pro-mendicant pope, Alexander IV, to secure the promotions of Aquinas and Bonaventure in 1257, finally allowing them to enter fully into the academic life. But while Aquinas was allowed to embark upon that life, another twist of events changed the trajectory of Bonaventure’s career: he was elected Minister General of the entire Franciscan order.

 

From 1257 until his death in 1274, Bonaventure was occupied with leadership of an order beset by many internal problems. He had to mediate a conflict between two major factions of Franciscans: the “Observants” or “Spirituals,” who advocated a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Francis, and the “Conventuals,” who understood that the growth and effectiveness of the order required adapting the Rule to new situations. This background conflict explains why the works of Saint Bonaventure from 1257 onward are no longer in the scholastic style which he and Thomas had learned at Paris. Rather, Bonaventure’s later works take the form of sermons, meditations, and spiritual treatises for his brother Franciscans. Another important work produced at this time is the Major Legend of Saint Francis, which continues to be the official biography of Francis for the Friars Minor. This biography filtered out the improbable stories, hearsay, and contradictory accounts previously in circulation among the friars, which were often used and abused by the competing factions to score points against each other. But perhaps the best known treatise of Bonaventure is The Journey of the Mind to God (Latin: Itinerarium mentis in Deum, often shortened to Itinerarium). This is where Bonaventure, reflecting on the image of the six-winged seraph who appeared to Saint Francis, explains the ascent to God according to six stages, culminating in a union which exceeds all creaturely understanding. The Itinerarium will be the basis of the next three reflections on Bonaventure.

 

This brief introduction to Saint Bonaventure offers a mere glimpse at the trials and tribulations of his life. From his sickly beginnings, to the mendicant controversy at Paris, to his election as Minister General, and—much later—his work to unite the Eastern and Western churches at the Second Council of Lyon, this great Doctor of the Church often found himself as a mediator, striving to bring together bitterly opposed factions into peaceful, brotherly unity. His own devotion to prayer sustained his monumental intellectual and leadership endeavours. As a synthesis of his approach to prayer, which we will explore in greater depth in the following reflections, perhaps a pithy quote from his treatise De Triplici Via (the Triple Way) can help us to enter into the mind of this great Doctor of the Church: “In prayer, there are three steps or stages: first, we deplore our misery, then we implore God’s mercy, and finally we worship Him.” These three stages correspond to the three cardinal virtues: by faith we recognize the greatness of God and our lowly state before him; by hope we dare to call on the Lord for forgiveness, and by charity we offer to him the worship and love due to him alone. By the example of Saint Bonaventure, may we also grow in faith, hope, and love for the crucified Christ whom he served so well.

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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 4

1 July 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 4 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)
This instalment will sum up our mini-series on Saint Teresa of Avila. Thus far, we have examined the first three stages of prayer, which she compares, sequentially, to drawing water from a well, to drawing water from a mill or windlass, and to drawing water from a stream or river. Each stage represents an increasing facility in watering the garden of one’s prayer life. Finally, in the fourth stage of prayer, the garden is watered by rain that pours down from the heavenly Father himself. Here, the labour of the first three stages gives way to the pure gratuity of God’s grace, such that the Christian might even be flooded by the love of God to the point of a rapture. This is where “the faculties of the soul” remain “in a state of suspension,” and “all outward strength vanishes, while the strength of the soul increases so that it may better have the fruition of this bliss” (The Life of Saint Teresa, ch. 18). This temporary abstraction from sensible or intellectual experience, as Teresa describes it, seems similar to Saint Paul’s own ascent to “the third heaven” as recounted in 2 Corinthians 12. However, we should remember that such an experience of rapture is a special gift of God, and that the Christian who does not receive this gift is no less capable of union with God. In fact, Teresa distinguishes between the “elevation” or “rapture” of the soul, on one hand, and the union with God which one may experience in the fourth stage of prayer. Rapture is often a sign of a special union, but union with God is also manifested when the soul actively knows and loves God. Indeed, the benefits enjoyed after rapture continue to manifest the soul’s union with God. Such a soul, “without knowing it, and doing nothing consciously to that end, begins to benefit its neighbours, and they become aware of this benefit because the flowers now have so powerful a fragrance as to make the neighbours desire to approach them” (The Life of Saint Teresa, ch. 19). The garden of the soul flourishes without the fatigue of the first two stages, and this flourishing comes from the rain which God himself sends down. Let us see discover further what the saint means when distinguishing rapture from union.
In these raptures the soul seems no longer to animate the body, and thus the natural heat of the body is felt to be very sensibly diminished: it gradually becomes colder, though conscious of the greatest sweetness and delight. No means of resistance is possible, whereas in union, where we are on our own ground, such a means exists: resistance may be painful and violent, but it can always almost be effected. But with rapture, as a rule, there is no such possibility. Often it comes like a strong, swift impulse, before your thought can forewarn you of it or before you can do anything to help yourself. You see and feel this cloud, or this powerful eagle, rising and bearing up up with it on its wings.
Notice how Teresa distinguishes union as occurring “when we are on our own ground.” This passage also suggests that, while rapture consists of a certain disjunction of body and soul, union occurs when the body and soul are once again in active harmony, when we are possessed of our normal faculties, and thus when we are fully free to even “resist” union. Thus, rapture is never the end or purpose of mystical experience, but is only a further means toward the union wherein the entire human creature, in body and soul, participates actively in the life of virtue. As we close our reflections on Saint Teresa, let us not be discouraged if we never experience the extraordinary transverberations, ecstasies, and levitations granted to exceptional saints like her. Even for such famous mystics, such experiences were never everyday occurrences but gifts given by God at times and places of his choosing. Rather, let us enter the fourth stage of prayer by being mindful of all the graces which God already pours down abundantly on us, and to unite ourselves to him not only in moments of solitary prayer and contemplation, but also in every act of perfect charity toward our neighbours. Thus the fragrance of God’s grace will continue to attract more souls to the garden of heavenly delights. In the next three instalments, we will shift our focus to another high medieval Doctor of the Church and contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas: the Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio.
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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 3

15 June 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 3 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

Proceeding along in our focus on St Teresa of Avila, we come to her third stage of prayer, which she likens to watering a garden from a river or spring. Unlike the first two stages—drawing from a well and using a water mill—in this stage, the difficulty is taken away almost completely, since a natural source of water supplies the garden by its own power. Here, the faculties of intellect and will are almost in complete harmony and union with God, receiving his consolation in greater measure while expending little effort. The soul reaches a level of humility surpassing that gained in the Prayer of Quiet, for “it sees clearly that it has done nothing at all of itself save to consent that the Lord shall grant it favours and to receive them with its will” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17).

This third stage of prayer corresponds to the fifth of the seven mansions described by Teresa in The Interior Castle. The fifth mansion, marked by the “prayer of simple union,” is marked by the realization that a greater peace is bestowed when the soul no longer competes against God, but comes to work in cooperation with God, even if the soul does not understand the full extent and measure of God’s wisdom and love. In The Life of Teresa, this means that the memory and imagination remain free but operate in conjunction with God’s goodness, such that the mind continues to work toward contemplation of God throughout the experiences of life. Whereas in the previous stage, the soul rests in the “holy repose which belongs to Mary [of Bethany],” in the third stage this holy repose “can also be that of Martha” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17). The active life is brought up into the contemplative life, and the synthesis of these two states represents a true flowering of the garden. “Already the flowers are opening: they are beginning to send out their fragrance” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 16).

Notice that, for Teresa, an increasing mystical union with God does not mean forgetting one’s place in the world in a flight from everyday existence, but in a virtuous growth that allows one to live well, no matter one’s state of life. Fortified by the life of prayer, the virtues are made incarnate in our own daily deeds, and the mind does not cease contemplating the things of God through the works of creation. In this mystical union, “the soul realizes that the will is captive and rejoicing, and that it alone is experiencing great quiet, while, on the other hand, the intellect and the memory as so free that they can attend to business and do works of charity” (The Life of Teresa, ch. 17). This description corresponds to the sixth mansion in The Interior Castle, wherein the gift of heavenly contemplation given to Teresa is poured forth and continues during her daily labours and tasks in the monastery.

In this Year of Prayer, let us consider what Teresa teaches us in this third stage. The mystic’s ascent to God through prayer involves the concretization of the life of virtue. Mysticism is not merely a heightened sense of self-awareness, nor an abstract emotional or affective state, nor elevation into a state of rapture alone. Instead, the life of prayer, fed directly by streams of living water flowing from the side of Christ, brings forth its flowers and fruit in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. By doing so, we follow Christ’s own synthesis of the Law and Prophets, expressed in his two great commandments: to love God above all, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 2

28 May 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 2 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

In the previous instalment, we introduced the four stages of prayer according to Saint Teresa of Avila, which she likens to four ways of watering a garden. The first stage, compared to the laborious act of drawing water from a well, requires the most effort: perseverance in the habit of prayer requires a habituation to its discipline and a concurrent struggle against the acedia or laziness which might hinder our ascent to God. One must face this initial stage of difficulty with courage and with joy, knowing that our endurance in the present will reap rewards in the future.

In this reflection, we consider the second stage of prayer, which Teresa likens to drawing water from a windlass or water mill. Once the trials of the first stage are passed, one advances in prayer with a little more ease, making use of a machine that draws water by harnessing the forces of nature. Here, the Lord grants more supernatural consolations as a recompense for the struggles of the first stage. The soul is now permitted to enter what Teresa calls “the Prayer of Quiet” or “Devotion of Peace,” a state which she describes as

a recollecting of the faculties of the soul [i.e., the intellect and the will], so that its fruition of that contentment may be of greater delight. But the faculties are not lost, nor do they sleep. The will alone is occupied in such a way that, without knowing how, it becomes captive. It allows itself to be imprisoned by God, as one who knows well itself to be the captive of Whom it loves. (The Life of Saint Teresa, chapter 14).

In other words, the intellect is no longer struggling to understand the reason why one ought to pray, as it may have done in the first stage. Rather, the intellect “rests” in its understanding of the new consolations which it enjoys in the present stage. The will, on the other hand, continues to love God, and this desire for him never ceases. This unceasing reach toward God is no longer a laborious struggle but a contentedness in recognizing that one’s humble position before God. Indeed, the will of human person becomes so completely conformed to the will of Father in imitation of Christ, that the Christian no longer struggles with competing desires. Rather, by uniting one’s desires to the desires of God, the false allure of competing desires is erased, and the soul more efficiently draws from wellspring of salvation.

In our prayer lives, let us seek the consolations gained by uniting our will to the will of God. As Christ taught to pray “thy will be done” in the Lord’s prayer, we live out that petition concretely by actively discerning God’s will and ordering our desires according to his heart. In doing so, we might enter the Devotion of Peace, and realize the truth which Dante Alighieri came to recognize in Paradiso: E ‘n la la sua voluntade è nostra pace—“in His will is our peace.”

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Saint Teresa of Avila, part 1

18 May 2024

Saint Teresa of Avila, Part 1 | The Year of Prayer

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

In the next four instalments, we will look at prayer through the eyes of another great Doctor of the Church, the Spanish mystic and founder of the Discalced Carmelites, Saint Teresa of Avila. Born in 1515 and died in 1582, Teresa lived in a time wherein the Church in Europe was shaken by both the Protestant Reformation and by internal crises, and was in desperate need of reform. Such external tumult is often the sign of a severe spiritual malaise, and Saint Teresa responded to the crisis of her era through a deep attachment to the power of prayer, understanding this to be the only effective counter to the spiritual needs of the Church.

She considers prayer in her two major works, namely, the autobiographical Life of Teresa of Jesus and her devotional-mystical work The Interior Castle. In the following reflections on Saint Teresa and prayer, we will focus principally on insights from The Life of Teresa, with occasional references to the Interior Castle.

Particularly, we will look at the analogy Teresa offers in her autobiography of the development of the life of prayer. She considers four ways to water a garden, which are likened to four stages through which one’s life of prayer grows.

It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways: [1] by taking the water from a well, which costs us great labour; or [2] by a water wheel and buckets, when the water is drawn by a windlass (I have sometimes drawn it in this way: it is less laborious and gives more water; or [3] by a stream or brook, which waters the ground much better, for it saturates the ground more thoroughly; or [4] by heavy rain, when the Lord waters it with no labour of ours, a way incomparably better than any of this which have been described. (The Life of Teresa, Chapter 11)

The first stage, like drawing water from a well, is like the first stage of prayer. Put very simply, Teresa is saying that beginners in the life of prayer must work hard to make a habit of its practices, “because they have become accustomed to a life of distraction.” Distractions in prayer are familiar to all of us, but this can perhaps be understood at a deeper level too: the less one prays, the less one is focussed on the spiritual realm and the more one’s mind is occupied by the earthly. We are therefore not only more distracted when we come to pray, but we are also less motivated, insofar as we have not convinced ourselves sufficiently of the importance of prayer by the fact of not putting it into practice. Building up this habit of doing something that is not yet deeply embedded in our psyche as a necessary part of our daily life is hard work.

Indeed, for many days, one may experience “aridity, dislike, distaste, and so little desire to go and draw water that he would give it up entirely.” Yet, just as Christ endured the suffering of the Cross, the Christian is called to endure the little crosses of this first stage, confident that such labour is pleasing to God and thus truly important. As Teresa says of her own experience, “it is quite certain that a single one of those hours in which the Lord has granted me to taste of Himself has seemed to me a later recompense for all the afflictions which I endured over a long period while keeping up the practice of prayer.” Similarly, we can be confident that the fruits of prayer, especially those that emerge later on, will make the earlier struggles entirely worthwhile. And what greater model is there for this perseverance than Christ’s Passion, without which the fruits of Easter and Pentecost, which we have only just finished celebrating, would not have been possible.

Our present day also has crises of its own, and the Church is in no less need of faithful witnesses supported by steadfast prayer in order to enlighten a world that seeks solutions in human wisdom alone. Let us also persevere in our own lives of prayer, so that the difficulties we endure and the struggle we engage in presently might lead to the same future recompense granted to Teresa.

In the following instalments, we will focus on the successive three stages of prayer according to Saint Teresa.

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Saint Thomas of Canterbury

29 December 2023

Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bishop & Martyr

By Joey Belleza

Saint Thomas Becket, or Thomas of Canterbury, is certainly one of the most remarkable saints in the history of the British Isles. As Lord Chancellor to King Henry II, he supported the Crown in its consolidation of power. His candidacy to become Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England was in the beginning part of a ploy by Henry to assert more control over the Church. But the king’s overreach soon went too far, and Thomas, faithful to his oath to protect the liberties of the English Church, stood firm against Henry’s encroachments. This began a protracted conflict between Primate and Prince, which led to Thomas’s seven-year exile in northern France. Only mediators sent by Pope Alexander III allowed Thomas to return to England, but the rivalry between Henry and the archbishop remained strong.

The dispute came to a head when four knights—perhaps acting on Henry’s orders, perhaps not—took it upon themselves to rid His Majesty of his most intractable opponent. On 29 December 1170, they stormed into Canterbury Cathedral as Thomas and the monks began to pray Vespers, with Thomas explicitly telling the monks to leave the doors open to the knights, since “it is not right to make a fortress out of God’s house.” The knights first told the archbishop that he must proceed to attend court at Winchester to account for his opposition to the king. Upon refusing, the knights surged into the choir where Thomas, grasping a pillar that he might not be dragged away from his cathedral, gloriously shed his blood before the altar of God.

In the twentieth century, these events were famously dramatized in T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.” In the first act, taking place 2 December 1170, Thomas meets, among others, some knights and four unnamed “tempters.” These tempters—three of whom mirror the three temptations of Christ in the desert—try to convince the archbishop to take safety in the king’s favour, or to take the riches promised if he cease his resistance, or to join a coalition of barons against the king. The fourth tempter, however, urges Thomas to excommunicate the king himself, for, although it would certainly result in his death, the rewards will be even greater:

TEMPTER.
But what is pleasure, kingly rule,
Or rule of men beneath a king,
With craft in corners, stealthy stratagem,
To general grasp of spiritual power?
Man oppressed by sin, since Adam fell—
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
king and bishop under your heel.
[…]
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Saint and martyr rule from the tomb.
Think, Thomas, think of enemies dismayed,
Creeping in penance, frightened of a shade;
Think of pilgrims, standing in line
Before the glittering jewelled shrine
From generation to generation
Bending the knee in supplication,
Think of the miracles, by God’s grace,
And think of your enemies, in another place.

Becket, troubled like Christ in the garden, must admit that he has entertained such thoughts about the glories granted to martyrs’ tombs, the miracles attributed to them, and the fate of “persecutors, in tireless torment, / Parched passion, beyond expiation.” But he ultimately rejects all the temptations, especially the fourth.

THOMAS.
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
The natural vigour in the venial sin
Is the way in which our lives begin.

Through the intercession of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, may we not fall prey to that “natural vigour in the venial sin,” that is, “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” May we remain steadfast in our dedication to Christ and his Church and, if called, to seek martyrdom for no other glory than that of eternal joy in the presence of God.

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Holy Innocents

28 December 2023

Holy Innocents

By Joey Belleza

One of the most precious and hauntingly beautiful products of English Christianity is the “Coventry Carol,” a sixteenth century poem which mourns the death of the Holy Innocents slain by the order of King Herod. Set to music many times in the following centuries, the more recent setting by contemporary British composer Phillip Stopford wondrously captures the plangency, horror, and anguish borne by the mothers of Bethlehem as their infant sons were massacred. The final verse of the Coventry Carol reads:

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

So deep was the Catholic sensibility in sixteenth century Coventry that even in this popular hymn, the collect of the Mass for the Holy Innocents is subtly referenced: non loquendo sed moriendo confessi sunt (“not by speaking but by dying they confessed their faith”). These children who could “neither say nor sing” the name of Christ are yet martyrs for him, for they died in his place. And in this way, they too fulfill the words of the Psalmist, which are used as the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Mass of the day: “Out of the mouths of babes and of sucklings, O God, You have fashioned praise because of Your foes.”

On the Feast of the Innocents—especially in this time when the lands tread by Our Lord are once more engulfed in war—let us pray for all the innocent lives lost, hoping that they too might join the martyred infants of Bethlehem, with all the angels and saints, and sing at last an unending hymn of praise.

To hear the Coventry Carol in Phillip Stopford’s achingly beautiful setting, watch the video below.

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Saint John, Apostle & Evangelist

27 December 2023

Saint John, Apostle & Evangelist

By Joey Belleza

Today we celebrate the feast of the Apostle John, the only apostle spared the fate of martyrdom. In another Wednesday catechesis, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us:

According to tradition, John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who in the Fourth Gospel laid his head against the Teacher’s breast at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 13: 23), stood at the foot of the Cross together with the Mother of Jesus (cf. Jn 19: 25) and lastly, witnessed both the empty tomb and the presence of the Risen One himself (cf. Jn 20: 2; 21: 7).

We know that this identification is disputed by scholars today, some of whom view him merely as the prototype of a disciple of Jesus. Leaving the exegetes to settle the matter, let us be content here with learning an important lesson for our lives: the Lord wishes to make each one of us a disciple who lives in personal friendship with him.

To achieve this, it is not enough to follow him and to listen to him outwardly: it is also necessary to live with him and like him. This is only possible in the context of a relationship of deep familiarity, imbued with the warmth of total trust. This is what happens between friends; for this reason Jesus said one day: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends…. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15: 13, 15).

Friendship with Jesus is a theme which Pope Benedict often emphasized; indeed, he made this point in his homily at the 2005 Mass for the Election of the Pope. In that homily, he recalled Cicero’s old characterization of friendship: idem velle atque idem nolle—having the same likes and dislikes. However, Christian friendship takes the Ciceronian conception and deepens it—wishing and desiring the same things means a communion of wills. Our wills are called to be so united to Christ that even in moments of struggle, we can still say “thy will be done.” Like Saint John, we must always rest our head on the breast of the Lord—upon his Sacred Heart—to unite our wills ever closer to his.

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Saint Stephen, Deacon & Protomartyr

26 December 2023

Saint Stephen, Deacon & Protomartyr

By Joey Belleza

In a catechesis on Saint Stephen, Pope Benedict XVI told his listeners:

Every year on the day after the Birth of the Lord the liturgy has us celebrate the Feast of St Stephen, a deacon and the first martyr. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles presents him to us as a man full of grace and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6:8-10; 7:55). Jesus’ promise, recorded in today’s Gospel text, was fulfilled in him: believers called to bear witness in difficult and dangerous circumstances will not be abandoned or defenceless; the Spirit of God will speak through them (cf. Mt 10:20).

Stephen the Deacon, in fact, worked, spoke and died motivated by the Holy Spirit, witnessing to the love of Christ even to the supreme sacrifice. The Protomartyr is described in his suffering as a perfect imitation of Christ, whose Passion is repeated even in the details. The whole of St Stephen’s life is shaped by God, conformed to Christ, whose Passion is replicated in him; in the final moment of death, on his knees he takes up the prayer of Jesus on the Cross, commending himself to the Lord (cf. Acts 7:59) and forgiving his enemies; “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). Filled with the Holy Spirit, when his eyes were about to be dimmed for ever, he fixed his gaze on “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (v. 55), the Lord of all and who draws all beings to himself.

On St Stephen’s Day we too are called to fix our eyes on the Son of God whom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas we contemplate in the mystery of his Incarnation. Through Baptism and Confirmation, through the precious gift of faith nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Jesus Christ has bound us to him and with the action of the Holy Spirit, wants to continue in us his work of salvation by which all things are redeemed, given value, uplifted and brought to completion. Letting ourselves be drawn by Christ, as St Stephen did, means opening our own life to the light that calls it, guides it and enables it to take the path of goodness, the path of a humanity according to God’s plan of love. Lastly, St Stephen is a model for all who wish to put themselves at the service of the new evangelization. He shows that the newness of the proclamation does not consist primarily in the use of original methods or techniques — which of course, have their usefulness — but rather in being filled with the Holy Spirit and letting ourselves be guided by him.

How often do we seek “original methods and techniques” to make ourselves understood without having the requisite zeal for God’s house? On this feast of Saint Stephen, may we pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that, strengthened with the sevenfold gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God, we too might boldly proclaim the Gospel.

Let us also pray for all deacons, whether permanent or chosen for the priesthood, that they too might be encouraged in their ordained ministry of service to the Church, and that when their time of service is complete, they too might gaze upon “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

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Saint Francis of Assisi

4th October 2023

Saint Francis of Assisi (Feast Day: 4 October)

Getting to know the real Poverello 

Francis of Assisi remains one of the most beloved saints of all time. His love for the natural world, for his fellow human beings, and for the poor and suffering Christ have gained for him a wide appeal among Christians and non-Christians alike. The current Pope’s selection of the regnal name “Francis” is one of the most obvious signs of the saint’s exalted place in the popular imagination. This enduring broad fascination with the Poverello (“little poor one”), however, has led to some misunderstandings of the man and consequent misappropriations of his legacy. From his death on 4 October 1226 to the present, many different groups—across society, inside the Church, and even among Franciscans—have sought to claim Francis as a mouthpiece for diverse, and even competing, viewpoints. 

Fortunately, recent scholarship on the earliest documents of Francis’s life have helped point the way toward a fresh portrait of the saint. A proper examination of these early sources depicts a man who is decidedly not, as Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” would have it, a carefree nature mystic opposed to the Church and churchmen of his time. Neither was he a man suddenly bestowed, as if from on high, with a clear and detailed vision of Church reform, a project which he resolutely pursued until his death. Nor is he the man of popular hagiographical traditions exercising power over animals (unfortunately the story of the “Wolf of Gubbio” does not describe an historical event). Neither is he a total pacifist in the mold of contemporary anti-war movements, nor the author of the beloved “Peace Prayer “which often bears his name (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”). Nor is he a man who upheld total poverty as an abstract institutional ideal above all other concerns.

If these things popularly associated with Francis are taken away, what do we have left of this figure so deeply admired? The answer to this question is far more complex, far more fascinating, and arguably far more compelling than the man of the legendary accounts.

Ironically, one contemporary author who has contributed greatly to our understanding of early Franciscan sources is not a Franciscan friar but a priest of the Order of Preachers (i.e., the Dominicans). Fr Augustine Thompson OP’s book Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) sifts through the earliest sources and eyewitness accounts from those who knew Francis, not to mention Francis’s own oft-neglected letters, to show a portrait of the man who, in his simple desire to follow God as the least of his disciples, struggled with the burden of authority thrust upon him. Unlike Saint Dominic, who had begun his religious life as an educated canon regular, Francis (only ordained a deacon toward the end of his life) was not a skilled administrator. His numerous attempts to produce an acceptable Rule for his friars prove this fact, and the effects of Francis’s managerial shortcomings were manifested in the bitter struggles among Franciscan factions which arose after his death. 

Despite all these things—or perhaps because of them—Francis remains a saintly example for all who, despite their faults and failings, strive to follow the will of God. As his own writings show, he was a man of the Church, deeply devoted to her ministers, confident in the power of the sacraments—especially the Eucharist. In his Letter to the Faithful and the Letter to Clerics, he admonishes each group, exhorting them to hold the Body and Blood of Christ with the highest reverence. He reminds the faithful in no uncertain terms the grave threat to their souls if they unworthily receive Holy Communion, while also telling priests who fail to use precious vessels and clean altar linens for the distribution and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament that they must render an account before Christ himself on Judgment Day. 

This Francis, burning with love for Christ present in the Eucharist, is the same Francis who received the stigmata—the wounds of Christ—upon his own body. He is not a man with power over animals nor an indignant opponent of bishops and popes but a servant profoundly devoted to the ministers and sacraments of the Church. Beyond the tranquil, romantic portraits and clean plaster statues on so many bird baths, Fr Augustine Thompson brings to light a very pious yet conflicted—and thus very human—saint worthy of our imitation.

For more on the historical figure of Francis of Assisi, see the following video and article by Fr Augustine. 

VIDEOPoverty in the Church & Saint Francis of Assisi

ARTICLEA Quest for the Historical Francis

By Dr Joey Belleza